Meteor shower promises a spectacular display

Dominion Observatory near Penticton welcomes visitors to watch Sunday's Perseid meteor shower

This weekend, Mother Nature will be putting on her own fireworks show, as the Perseid meteor shower makes its annual visit to summer skies.

On Sunday, the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory will be celebrating the event, with the help of some guest speakers and members of the Royal Astronomical Society, Okanagan Centre, who will be setting up their telescopes at the observatory for a public viewing.

The observatory on White Lake Road, sited well away from interfering city lights, is an ideal spot for observing the shower, according to retired astronomer and astronomical society member Chris Purton.

“On Aug. 12 there will be no moon during the evening, so the sky should be really dark. If the weather is at all kind to us, it should be quite spectacular,” said Purton. “It would be spectacular even without the meteors; the meteor shower is an added bonus.”

The Perseids are the debris stream filling the orbit of Comet Swift Tuttle. According to astronomer Ken Tapping, thousands of small pieces of that debris, ranging in size from dust upwards, will crash into the atmosphere at tens of kilometres a second.

Meteors, sometimes inaccurately called shooting stars, are common, according to Tapping, and can be seen on any clear night, especially at places far away from lights, like the observatory. But on nights like Sunday, there will be a much larger number of meteors as the Earth speeds through a stream of fragments crossing at many kilometres a second.

Purton, along with Tapping, Ryan Ransom and Roland Kothes, will be giving a short series of talks as they wait for darkness to fall. The gates to the observatory open at 7:30 p.m., with the talks starting at 8:15 p.m. Sky gazing should begin at about 9:30 p.m.

The telescopes set up by the astronomical society are an added feature of the evening. They don’t help in seeing the meteors, Purton said, but are there to take advantage to the dark location, to let people see for themselves some of the other wonders of the universe, like star clusters, gaseous nebulae and far-off galaxies.

“The sight of hundreds of people stretched out on the lawn of the observatory in the pitch black, staring at the sky, makes quite a scene,” said Purton, adding that he loves to hear the audience ooh and aah as the meteors shoot through the night sky. “If it’s really bright it can even generate a spontaneous round of applause.”

The event is free, and visitors are advised to bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on.

The Dominion Observatory is located at 717 White Lake Road, south of the junction of Highway 97 and Highway 3.